My friend calls, spills out troubles. And then: “I’m a mess.”
I say, “Ohhh. Ouch.”
I want to Band-Aid the boo-boo, apply a soothing salve. After all, in both Enneagram and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I’m “helper.” First of seven children, go-to sister, text-anytime friend, wife of 43 years, Baby-Boomer mother, here-for-you grandmother, writer of human story, teacher, on-call mental health counselor, columnist. I know how to rally for people.
But my smarts won’t touch the heart of this pain, nor the pain in the heart. My friend’s voice breaks, “I don’t know what to do.”
Me neither, so to find a starting place, I inhale s-l-o-w-l-y and exhale-slide into a chair. Can I listen with my heart to my friend’s heart? I want my cells calm, not jumpy, and my head quiet, not idea-spouting. I want to create time, make space, witness, and lean in toward understanding. But I’m not sure how, so I say, “this is hard. Sure you’re a mess. How could you not be? Say more.”
There is more, and the story tumbles out. It’s big, life-altering. How could I have advice? I mumble an occasional “uh-hmm.” But I wonder, is being present enough?
Maybe. For now I follow poet Patricia McKernon Runkle’s suggestion: “Slip off your needs and set them by the door. Enter barefoot this darkened chapel, hollowed by loss, hollowed by sorrow … You are here to listen.”
Listening is not surface Band-Aid. Listening is balm for deep wounds. My friend asks, “How do I proceed?”
I stumble, “I wish I could … I wish I had …”
“Silent listening,” I remind myself, and return my focus to hearing, away from my problem-solving mind patterns. Nonetheless thoughts chatter, “Call so-and-so. Go to that link.”
My brain spews patch-the-unpatchable solutions. I don’t speak them. This person does not need my patterns. That which stitches together one life may not fit another’s patchwork. In the quilt of our lives we each need our own threads. I whisper, “I’m so sorry” and quote the title of a book by Megan Devine. “It’s OK That You’re Not OK.”
Dad would say: “Twenty years from now, what in this will matter? What would be the long view?”
My father’s words guide me, always. But I don’t offer them now. Maybe tomorrow. Today I offer listening.
My friend talks on and eventually hangs up. I stare at the gold sunbeams on the honey-colored floor and feel the spring heat through the open window. The light and warmth steady me and I gather pen and 8-by-11-inch paper, gaze at the blank white page and wait for sentences. Writing can unwind our human dilemmas, our gains and losses, joys and sorrows, loves and heartbreaks.
This column will speak to those universal ups and downs, lessons learned from paying attention, as in this phone call, as in 13 years of writing columns and two books. Life Unwound will be composed from life-listening.
Did I help my friend? Perhaps, because compassionate listening empowers the life force in the other, lets the other’s emptying heart be heard. And being heard peels away the Band-Aid to allow in oxygen for healing. As Piglet says to Pooh, “it’s okay to feel Not Very Okay At All. It can be quite normal, in fact. And all you need to do, on those days when you feel Not Very Okay At All, is come and find me, and tell me. Don’t ever feel like you have to hide the fact you’re feeling Not Very Okay At All. Always come and tell me. Because I will always be there.”
My friend’s ending words echo in my head. “Gotta go, call ya later. Thanks for listening.”